Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008, a good year for sport

Reviews of the year are tricky. It can be hard to pick over the bones of a year without overanalysing, without totting up wins and losses and coming to the wrong conclusion, without forgetting the memories and moments dotted throughout a year and remembering only the outcomes. Sport at its best should chew us up and spit us out feeling like we’ve been through something visceral, it should get us deep in the gut. Jumpthefence finds that the greatest occasions are the ones we just can’t wait to talk about, when we’re bursting to describe and dissect all that just happened. Looking back, 2008 gave us a mountain of such days.

August 16th stands out. Jumpthefence sat on the couch that afternoon half-lazy and cranky but then Usain Bolt stomped his way through the 100m final and our mouths fell open; you just knew you were watching the real deal, something damn special. Something so wonderful we rang friends to tell them about it. Later that day Tyrone gave the performance of the year in making a mockery of Dublin’s Sam Maguire ambitions – they were as chillingly remorseless as Javier Bardem's killer in No Country for Old Men, assured of their abilities and skills as they conjured three wonderfully executed goals and ripped their opponents asunder time and again. We spent that night boring everyone within earshot.

Tyrone finished the job to be top of the tree once more - Mickey Harte staking his claim for manager of a generation and Sean Cavanagh for player of a generation - by finally killing off Kerry’s stumbling, never-really-convincing attempts for three-in-a-row. This Kerry side will have Tyrone hanging over them forever, much as they might recoil from that suggestion. We also saw a humdinger of a Munster final comeback from Cork in the rain of Pairc Ui Chaoimh, we saw a Wexford surge under Jason Ryan. Hey, we saw a good year of football.

In the hurling world, we marvelled at Joe Canning’s sheer brilliance for an hour in Thurles on the same evening that Cork reached into themselves for one more (final perhaps?) showing of the specialness they possess. Cork had nothing on Kilkenny of course, the cats hurling up a storm to floor the rebels with instinctive ruthlessness and then dismantling Waterford with the kind of perfect pitch possibly seen once a generation. We’ve never been one for the underdog, preferring greatness to brave defiance; that September afternoon was simply awesome.

For all its failings and critics, soccer gave us a few decent nights out. Giovanni Trapattoni has made his own mark on our Irish team already, installing a bit of a plan of how to play, which by its nature brought a lot more belief in the players. Stephen Reid looked like becoming a real player till injury again denied him. Andy Reid became the latest cause celebre without doing anything to deserve it. Stephen Ireland became the top Irish player across the water but isn’t playing for us. Seven points from nine, and indications we know where we’re going, would have been grabbed at previously, but there are tougher games ahead.

Elsewhere, the Champions League final was an epic rollercoaster, with first Man Utd imperious, then Chelsea powerfully dominant, and then the slip by John Terry of all people to swing the title in Man Utd’s probably just about deserved direction. Ronaldo was sensational and infuriating equally. Euro 08 was a little treat of a surprise, each team – Russia, Holland, Croatia, Turkey, especially - contributing something of themselves, trying to play a bit of ball with some creativity and technique. There were hardly any dud games, plenty of excellent ones and the best team won in Spain. No complaints.

Munster did what Munster do and ground out wins however which way they needed to in winning another Heineken Cup while the Irish team fell very, very flat. Our boxers gave us more cheer (along with three medals)in the Olympics than imagined and Paul Hession was really, sensationally excellent, while the likes of Derval O’Rourke, Eileen O’Keeffe and Alistair Cragg kinda disappointed. Padraig Harrington gave us two amazing weekends with two major titles while the Cork hurlers and county board left themselves down yet again with the ongoing bickering that gets more ridiculous (was there any sadder – and we mean it in every sense – picture than that of a group of hurlers who’re refusing to play bizarrely training themselves in Mallow?) each day it continues.

But we can’t be too greedy. Overall sport in 2008 gave us more cheer than gloom. In these times we can’t ask for anything more from it.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Things that didn't float our boat in 2008

Things that Jumpthefence added to its black book…
1 Ongoing GAA problems
The Cork strikes. The Paul Galvin affair. The Justin McCarthy ousting in Waterford. The doping controversy. The Cork strikes again. Sure it’s nice to have something to talk about in the pub but there seems to be stuff happening every year now where nobody comes out with any dignity or class and the ordinary fan is just getting bored. Everybody loses a bit of themselves with the problems in Cork. Kerry didn’t do themselves any favours with the reaction to Galvin’s ban. The GAA themselves didn’t come up smelling of roses in any of the mishaps. Back to the on-field stuff next year maybe?

2 Irish rugby team
If Munster won hearts and minds and plaudits, Ireland’s rugby side continued the doomy spiral of the World Cup performances with an awful Six Nations and a dispiriting Autumn series (even with new manager Declan Kidney installed). There was something naturally gloomy about the camp in the final days of Eddie O’Sullivan and defeats to France, Wales and England were deserved and horribly predictable. Kidney came in to some fanfare but New Zealand made boys of us and the Argentina win was so ugly it felt like defeat.

3 Arsenal
Started the year top of the Premier League amid proclamations of Wenger’s genius at putting together the best young players in the history of the game. Just didn’t have enough steel, winning mentality and experience to see out big games or the season (the 4-0 defeat to Utd in the cup hugely deflated their aura, late collapses from winning positions at Chelsea, Utd and Liverpool (Champs Lge) summed up their problems). End the year with question marks over hanging onto fourth spot, having lost two captains and valid wonderings as to the judgement of their manager in thinking these youngsters were up to it.

4 Cristiano Ronaldo
Oh man oh man, how can anyone be so damned good yet so damned annoying? Jumpthefence actually feels sorry for him at times as he does tend to get kicked, fouled and taken out of games far more than most footballers. But the increasing ego that questions every tackle made as an offense, the petulance, the strutting, the arrogance, the self-perception that he’s now bigger than Man Utd, make one the world’s top players extremely unlikable. And that’s a shame, cos it alters the ordinary punters’ sense of how good he is.

5 Domestic football
Though the paranoia and bitterness that pervades the domestic game can make it hard to root for at times, nobody wants to see season after season dominated by clubs going down the swanny or stories of debts and administrations being more popular than feelgood stories. Cork City almost went under. Pretty much every other club around had some form of difficulties. All due to overreaching, misplaced ambition and just never being able to connect with the wider public. An awful pity, but every step forward of the past five years seems to be followed by two backwards.

6 The misplaced hypes and hopes
Hey, it’ll happen anyway and everywhere but Jumpthefence finds a terrible disparity at times between those who receive our cheers/ jeers and those who deserve them. Giovanni Trapattoni does a pretty good job early days yet gets abuse for not fielding an average-to-good prem lge player while Bernard Dunne beats a couple of no-hopers and continually gets peddled as a fighting machine. We talk up a rugby team that’s struggling to get into the top eight in the world while laughing at and dismissing individuals who’re fighting massive odds for not winning Olympic medals. Some perspective needs to be found at times. We won’t be holding breath.

Things we liked in 2008

Eight things that Jumpthefence took pleasure in throughout the past year…
1 Euro 08
Probably the best football tournament we can remember as regards consistent quality of football offered up by so many different teams and we hate to say it, but that was made more enjoyable for the absence of Ireland's and England’s dourness. So many top games or performances – Turkey 3 Czech Rep 2, Croatia 2 Germany 1, Holland 3 Italy 0, Portugal 2 Germany 3, Croatia 1 Turkey 1, Holland 1 Russia 3 – to name just a few, even if it maybe lacked one real classic defining contest.

2 Olympics
Yep, probably the best olympics of jumpthefence’s lifetime also. Michael Phelps dominated the first week. Usain Bolt left us in awe the second. Throw in plenty brave Irish performances (though were the boxers’ displays slightly overrated?) and a heap of interesting finals and stories and it kept us entertained for a fortnight.

3 Munster rugby
Sometimes we’re inclined to think we big up this crowd too much for a competition that in many ways English/ French sides care little enough about, but there’s no getting away from the fact that Munster have produced some wonderful displays and days and performers and 2008’s Heinken Cup odyssey was no less epic – wins away at Gloucester and Saracens before seeing off top dogs Toulouse.

4 Kilkenny hurlers
There’s not much left to say about this gang. Special is an overused word in sport but this team are that. Awesome is as overutilised but they deserved that tag for the final display over Waterford. We could watch them hook, block, tackle, strike, score and work all day long. All of the skills and professionalism without the crap hyping themselves up – others take note.

5 Padraig Harrington
We’ve already posted here that he well deserved the Irish sportsperson of the year award. Four majors – two titles is the sort of take that earns genuine top golfer status, and much as many will argue no, he probably needed the US PGA to really claim that he could go across the pond and do the business. Now he can earn greatness by continuing that sort of form.

6 Cristiano Ronaldo
Ah, come off it begrudgers. There’s a hell of a lot that’s unlikable about the man (see our list of disappointments to come) but Jumpthefence won’t listen to anyone who tried to argue this guy didn’t have a career season. Was the most influential player (31 goals) in the best league in the world and played a huge role – he was MOTM in the Champs Lge final for those who claim he can’t handle the big occasion – in winning the Champs Lge (8 goals) also. Brilliantly effective.

7 Stephen Ireland
Okay, he’s not playing for Ireland right now. But Ireland has turned himself around from the potential everybody could see to a real top premier league midfielder and surely a candidate for Young Player of the season across the water. We argued a couple of years ago that he was the most technically gifted Irish footballer we’d seen and he’s shown that with his form - scoring goals, creating goals, influencing games with his passing range, presence and fitness (the two worries previously) and ability on the ball.

8 Il Trap
Hard to believe that it was only this year that the FAI somehow managed to pull off a serious coup by dragging a genuine football legend from the hat when we were all expecting a Terry Venables or Graeme Souness. And he’s brought a feelgood factor back to Irish football, some decent results, an actual plan and shape of what he’s about (unlike our previous two managers) and we head towards 2009 in good spirits. We’d have taken that this time last year.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Things we learnt 3

1 We're still not convinced by Liverpool
Yes, yes, Jumpthefence has enough Liverpool fans as friends to know that they're top of the league having been missing their best attacker for much of the season so a basic analysis of matters would suggest there ain't a whole pile wrong. But sometimes a little delving beneath the surface tells more. As one notoriously biased Pool fan on a Guardian blog admitted,their performances so far have been hugely lacklustre. Yesterday's 1-1 draw with Arsenal (as predicted Friday folks!!) might seem a very decent result but in truth Arsene Wenger's side were performing poorly, lacking their captain after half-time,lightweight in midfield, terrified of every ball in defence and generally as there for the taking as you can be. Liverpool were comfortable, yet they never took a risk or showed a hint of ambition to go for the throat when it was on. Four draws in five games they could have won could come back to haunt them.
By the way, great to see Robbie Keane scoring a cracker, but we wouldn't be getting carried away with talk of answering his critics just yet.

2 Padraig Harrington is Irish sportsperson of the year
And rightly so. Much crazy talk went around the sports forums all week that Harrington was somehow undeserving of the honour for various reasons that went through different shades of begrudgery. Harrington won two of the four majors in golf this past year. Imagine the thumping of chests from across the water if Andy Murray won Wimbledon and the US Open. Just because it's a slightly minority sport here in this country doesn't make Harrington's achievements any less. I know a fair shot of people that cheered Harrington to those wins who wouldn't know a putter from a nine-iron if both were handed to them. The fact he seems a genuinely nice guy only makes it sweeter. Would have been nice to see them recognise Kilkenny as team of the year though.

3 Aiden McGeady's time with Celtic may be up
No harm either if true. We always had the impression of McGeady as a mild-mannered enough chap, a sort of incomprehensible, forever-young winger who just went out and played with little worry about money or the trappings of modern football. Seems he's got a bit of a rep for being mouthy and not slow in getting his point across in the dressing-room though. Anyhow, McGeady's surely reached the end of the road and it could be the best thing for him. There's no more improving he can do playing the likes of Motherwell and Hamilton week after week and as much as Celtic fans wouldn't agree,a couple of years with an Everton or a Middlebrough would be better for his development and decision-making - the main part of his game that needs work. Bayern Munich might be fanciful. A mid-to-top premier league team shouldn't be and the boy's young enough yet. We watch with interest.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Champs lge draw + weekend action

Well at last the Champions League gets somewhat interesting. After the horrible boredom of the group stages – Jumpthefence turned over to Eastenders on final game night and the lads on RTE were getting awfully stale with far too much filler – we’re treated to some crackers in the first knockout round. Premier league vs Serie A/ La Liga with a whole pile of interesting subplots thrown in. This time last year I’d have fancied all the English sides to progress but there are reasons enough to suggest it won’t all be one-way traffic now; in fact I’d wager there’ll be some high-profile casualty when these games are done and dusted.

Arsenal-Roma won’t be as straight-forward as one might think. Roma are on a decent winning streak after terrible early season form and with Totti back, Perrotta on form and Vucinic a threat, they won’t be fearing Arsenal at all. Chelsea-Juve has the Ranieri factor to lead with. Juve have actually looked a team again this season, thumping four past Milan last week, and with Del Piero on the sort of form he showed ten years ago, Amauri a revelation up front and the likes of Marchisio and De Ceglie coming through the ranks, they’ll be more than fodder for Chelsea.

United-Inter will bring out the best in the Mourinho/ Ferguson history. Inter looked out of their depth crumbling to Liverpool last year but Jose will have them more compact, harder to beat and a tad more resilient I feel. If Zlatan Ibrahimovic is ever going to announce himself as a big-game player (Italian football has had its share of Godots, we’re always waiting for them – Totti, Del Piero was actually known by that name in Italy), there’d hardly be a better tie. And Real-Liverpool has a glean of importance off it. Real have looked a shambles at times but with Ramos in charge they ought be better organised, up for it and if Robben is fit he could well inspire an upset. Rafa, going back to Madrid, will most likely make a stalemate of it and hope to nick a goal somewhere. Torres of course will be well up for it, and could be the deciding factor.

And if you want more: Arsenal-Liverpool this weekend could be fun. Pool will fancy making another statement of intent on their title, ahem, charge but like the teenage boy who’s finally got the go-ahead to take things further with the girlfriend, their nervousness may well end up making a mess of things. Arsenal can always be relied upon to be flaky so when we’re expecting a big-game, all-action display they could be disappointing (let’s be honest, they were lucky out to get something from Chelsea a few weeks ago). Both teams are far too inconsistent to call it. So we’ll say a 1-1 draw is a good bet.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Sutherland begins tough pro road

Pro-boxing here in Ireland is a strange little world. Darren Sutherland takes his first baby steps into it tonight and you'd have to wonder just where the road's likely to take him (along with other Olympic medallists like Kenny Egan - who seems to be the new celeb du jour). Sutherland's a confident yet likeable character with the sort of back story and wit that sportswriters tend to love but that won't be much help when he steps into the pro ring for the first time at the age of 26.
For all the hype about Bernard Dunne, and by golly there is hype whenever the man struts into the ring, he's still making his way fighting mainly journeymen and no-hopers and there's something cringeworthy about it when we see Mick Dowling shifting uncomfortably on RTE every time he's asked to talk Dunne up after a fight. (For what it's worth, Jumpthefence rates Andy Lee as our one genuine world title hope at the moment.) Sutherland is heading into a dangerous enough division where he'll most likely have to face the likes of Lee or John Duddy before long if he's to make a name for himself. Jumpthefence hopes that Sutherland at least has a real go at the pro game and he doesn't find himself drifting around the scene trying to drum up a show for nothing fights a few years down the line.
Other bits of interest: So sad to see Evander Holyfield still in the ring - Tribune interview with him here

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Question - Robbie Keane,mistake or hard done by?

Right, an explanation to begin, before the catterwalling about there being “no problem” with Robbie Keane starts. A striker Rafa Benitez paid £20m for (but more importantly, that was hailed as the final piece of the jigsaw all summer) sat his arse on the bench over a full league game with Blackburn that Liverpool struggled for long spells throughout, and then a crucial home game with Hull where they badly needed a spark. And that’s all while their top forward is out injured. There IS a problem. To suggest not would take an Irish government-like, heads-in-the-sand, of-course-we-can-always-rely-on-the-building-industry stubborness.

And the problem is that Robbie Keane, for varying reasons, has not started terribly well at Liverpool. Those wondering exactly why it was Benitez didn’t rush him from the bench last Saturday are ignoring the evidence built up from Liege (x2), Sunderland, Middlesbrough, Villa, Man Utd, Stoke, Wigan, Chelsea, Spurs, Atletico, Bolton, Fulham, West Ham – all games where Keane neither looked like scoring or creating a goal. 13 starts, 2 sub appearances, for 2 goals against West Brom. You’d swear Benitez was tinkering with a goal machine for all the moaning. If we were to be critical, Keane’s been largely ineffective and mostly anonymous. There have to be questions as to why Benitez bought him and to whether he’s possibly out of his depth.

Okay, there are possible qualifications. Keane’s not had a regular partner and wasn’t bought for playing up front on his own. The way Liverpool play doesn’t necessarily help a striker’s flow of goals (though they are top of the league). Being hauled off every game doesn’t do much for a man’s confidence. But, and it’s a J-Lo sized but(t), there must be questions asked of Keane in all this. Martin Samuel wrote a great piece in the Times recently about how Steven Gerrard supporters spend an awful lot of time telling people all the things he can’t do for a supposedly great player and Jumpthefence finds the same with Robbie Keane. Tony Cascarino took it to farcical lengths last week, narrowing Keane’s ideal effectiveness down to a situation that might happen once a month at best (though there was a glimmer of truth in his piece). You’ll see explanations that Liverpool don’t play to Robbie’s strengths, but that hardly hampered Fernando Torres last season and in truth, top attacking players ought have the capacity to adjust and still offer something.

His limitations? Keane’s not a link man – yep he likes dropping deep but rarely enough is it effective and he doesn’t tot up huge assists – so suggestions of a new Kenny Dalglish were well wide of the mark. He’s not a prolific finisher. Yeah, he’s our leading scorer but critics would point to a lot of padding out against poor sides. Last campaign he missed big chances at home to Germany (that lob) and Czech Rep (that header) and didn’t score against either. Remember him being whipped off at home to Switzerland when we needed a goal the campaign before that (and he didn’t score against France or Switzerland then either)? He’s tactically poor. How many times have we moaned collectively at his flapping about the place up front for Ireland, running a lot but achieving damn little. Throw this all together and there has to be a school of thought that says Keane’s just not a top-club striker. Add in the fact that his temperament doesn’t seem fantastic right now – for those who claim he’s putting the head down and quietly getting on with things, shrugging shoulders at fans during the Hull game, running his hands over his face every time he’s taken off and shaking his head at not getting every pass smacks of a look-how-badly-I’m-being-treated attitude – and perhaps performing highly at Spurs is very different to the pressures of life at Liverpool.

For all this, he does have strengths; in fact, there were occasions last season where Jumpthefence believed he might be turning into a real top player. His movement round the goal is supreme; he’s caught god knows how many defenders with that feint to near post, go far post routine. Those knacky little twitches and turns that can create space in phone-box like areas. Working off knock downs to get in behind defenders. Mostly those instinctive finishes like the crackers notched for Spurs at Anfield and home to Chelsea last season (check out all his 07/08 goals here).

Look, it might all turn out grand for Keane yet; there’s plenty of players who took time to settle at a top club (though mostly it’s guys who came from abroad). But Jumpthefence doesn’t believe that the return of Torres will automatically mean a Yorke-Cole like gelling up front for Pool, in fact we’d suggest it’ll likely limit his chances as Rafa dons his conservative 4-2-3-1 cap. Out wide for Kuyt/ Riera simply can’t work. He may not be shipped out in January (that’s be far too galling an admission of mistake from Benitez) but the summer would be a good bet. We take no pleasure in this – it’s far too long (Duff circa 03/05) since we had a player on form at a top club. But evidence so far would say it ain’t gonna turn out sweetness and light for Robbie Keane. Blame Rafa if you like, but there’s more to this problem.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The kind of non-sporting rant

There are few enough things that bring out the grumpy old man in Jumpthefence - Eddie Hobbs, people who bladder on endlessly about recession - and generally it's not a side we like to share with people. But when we walk into the local boozer, a place where we normally get to watch football in the company of a quiet pint, and the following conversation ensues, there's nothing for it but whining.

Us: Any chance of turning on Barcelona-Real game?
Barman: Sorry, I can't. X-factor is on.
Us: Ha! I thought for a minute you said X-factor took precedence over the football in a pub.
Barman: Ahem... That's right. People want to watch X-factor.
Us: What sort of deprived, uncultured, needy people are seriously wanting to watch X-Factor?
Barman: Them! (points to group of respectable looking middle aged men in corner of bar)

Now, Jumpthefence would prefer to ignore completely the nonsense that is this programme but when it impinges on football watching, there's gonna be a problem. Is it just us that cannot quite understand the appeal of a bunch of talentless wasters making eegits of themselves week after week? Is there anything more genuinely nauseating on TV than the way they weekly exploit some poor 16-year-old kid by pushing them on the audience as some kind of downtrodden, in-need-of--happiness story before they then sing and the "uplifting" music appears as they've told how wonderful they are? Is there any possible reason for a programme that holds up a person who won't/ can't sing (that's Britney Spears)as the world's biggest star, gives her a standing ovation for the biggest joke of a performance ever,and holds her up as some kind of person to aspire to? Is there no end to the lengths these people won't go to to make the audience think this is somehow important so they can fleece people of more money? Is there a more smarmy, annoying head on TV than Louis Walsh? Is there any reason for watching this drivel (besides perhaps Cheryl Cole)?
Please make this never have to enter our world again.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Things we learnt

Jumpthefence may have overindulged in some activities for various reasons over the weekend, but here’s what learnings were made clearer over the last few days of sporting activity…

1 Liverpool are passing up their chance to pull away in the league
Okay, it may well be that all the top sides are dropping a few more points than expected in the last few weeks. It may well be that the Pool are still top of the league by a point heading towards Christmas. It may well be that Chelsea don’t look anywhere like as invincible as people would have you believe, Arsenal are as likely to crumble under pressure as revel in it and Man Utd’s attack still isn’t gelling with Berbatov, Ronaldo, Tevez and Rooney not quite clicking into gear as a force. But United have played away to Aston Villa, Man City and Spurs in the last month. Liverpool were at home to Fulham, West Ham and Hull over the same period. Yet United actually gained two points over those six games. It’s hard to escape the notion that Rafa Benitez’s men have missed their best chance to make a statement and pull 5/6 points clear at the top and the main reason is they’re simply not good enough. (We’ll get back to Robbie Keane’s increasing outsider’s role soon here.)

2 Munster are Munster, Leinster are Leinster
For all Eamonn Sweeney’s thoughts in the Sindo yesterday, and I agree with him largely in that the chastising of Leinster as some kind of rich man’s pastime while Munster are paraded as the working man’s team is complete tosh, there’s no getting away from the difference in mentality between the two sides. It seems no matter the personnel or ability, there’s a large gap in how they approach games. Munster grind wins as naturally as FAS execs blow money. Leinster, on the other hand, keep living up to their windy reputation. Swap the sides around over the weekend for a minute – there’s no way Munster would have let a game in Castres slip away and I couldn’t see Leinster pulling that Clermont game from the fire when under the cosh. I may weep occasionally when I see Munster wins being lauded as some kind of miracle and I grit my teeth at the overhyping that accompanies every single act from the crowd at Thomond but I won’t begrudge that there’s something special in their make-up.

3 Crossmaglen are some club
Ulster football mightn’t be everyone’s cup of tea and truth is, it’s damn ugly on the eye a hell of a lot of the time. Handpass, tackle, turnover, handpass, handpass, tackle, foul, and so on tends to be the pattern of things. It’s not free-flowing stuff and yesterday’s Ulster final replay between Crossmaglen and Ballinderry was no different, with hit after monstrous hit going in and frequent foul and illegal stuff happening on and off the ball. Yet that’s just why you have to admire a side that continue to come back for more year after year. They’ve won 13 Armagh titles in a row and now they’ve negotiated through three Ulsters in a row, despite having to constantly see off sides from the toughest province of the lot. Oisin McConville is remarkably still inspiring them, as are the McEntees and of course the Kernans are the energy and pace of the team. Note to footballing connoisseurs: don’t tune into their All-Ireland semi with Drom-Broadford expecting a classic.
Other things we liked this weekend:
Eamonn Sweeney again on the crazy money pumped towards horses in Ireland
The Guardian on the two big European clashes over the weekend - El Classico of Barca-Real and the Juve-Milan match-up in Italy

Monday, December 8, 2008

Things we learnt 1

We’re hoping that this will be pretty much a weekly round-up of learnings we make over a weekend of sporting action, to be shared with the populace as early as possible on Monday morning (ahem kinda late today). This weekend Jumpthefence has taken on board…

1 Something IS up with Cristiano Ronaldo
Okay, we were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for the ongoing (and increasing it seems) petulance and general consternation every time someone dares tackle him. We put the lack of smiliness down to inconsistent form and frustration with same. We let that stupid handball go and blamed it away on lack of concentration/ bad luck/ just the wrong call at the wrong time. But we watched the Sunderland game on Saturday and couldn’t help be disgusted by him. (By the by, so-called experts, since when did sticking 11 men behind the ball in the most blatant act of defensive football I’ve ever witnessed – I’ve seen more ambition in a couch-ridden, pot-smoking, dole-queueing former schoolmate – constitute a “brave” performance that “didn’t deserve its cruel ending?” Nobody’s deserved defeat more since that 12-year old who lost to Leona Lewis on X-factor.) Simply put, Ronaldo didn’t fancy the clipping he was getting around the ankles from Phil Bardsley every time he got possession. He strolled around, gave ball away time and again, showed no real conviction or pace about what he was doing and looked like someone who was believing too much hype, didn’t really want to actually have to perform and certainly didn’t want to be where he was. Then he decided he’d had enough and walked off. It’s the first time I’ve come round to thinking perhaps his heart really isn’t in Man Utd anymore. As Gilesy said on RTE later, watch this space.

2 Manny Pacquiao is the real deal (subtitle – Oscar De La Hoya is gone)
Jumpthefence recalls coming across this Filipino scrapper around the time he clashed with another great, Marco Antonio Barrera, a few years ago and thinking he was indeed a truly top fighter. Since then, he’s seen off Barrera (twice), another Mexican legend in Erik Morales, Juan Manuel Marquez (twice also), Oscar Larios and now Oscar De La Hoya. He’s fought at three different weights this year alone. He’s outboxed, outfought, outworked, outthought and blitzed opponents when the needs arose; basically he’s won every which way he’s had to. He’s only lost three times in his career and two of those losses were very early on. He’s got the speed and agility of Prince Naseem Hamed but more heart and brains. On Saturday night he outpunched and eventually wore down a guy who’s naturally far bigger. When people questioned his punching power at higher weights, he whopped Marquez. He fights for his country more than ego or money. He’s now coming after either Ricky Hatton (he’d have far far too much for Hatton) or Floyd Mayweather (fight of the decade time?). Check him out if you get the chance.
As the subplot, De La Hoya’s days are certainly numbered, with so many losses in recent times. And you could question the greatness of Pacquiao’s achievements by pointing out his opponent’s weaknesses. But it was the complete dismantling job done by Pacquiao that was so impressive here.

3 EVERYBODY’S got an opinion on Roy the boy
Jumpthefence could well have spent the whole weekend reading/ listening to people’s opinions on Keane and still had leftover material for Monday evening and the interesting matter is how so many can differ in their basic approach to the story. The Sindo predictably had a bit of a go (Richard Sadlier’s never been slow to throw stories around about Keane and John O’Brien put the boot in as well). David Walsh was fairly sympathetic in the Times while Simon Barnes was, well, harsh. Tom Humphries has been largely in the same boat as always. Giles on the Premiership (or whatever it’s called these days) reckoned it all came down to the lack of quality signings. Kieran Shannon made an interesting piece in the Tribune, commenting on the lack of leaders Keane had brought in. Some of the theories as to where it went wrong included: crap manager; no people skills; awful signings; isolated personality; no trust between players/ Keane; basic psychological flaw in man himself; quitter; no coaching abilities; unable to put up with modern game/ modern players; no wish to be involved with relegation scrap; lack of love for game; crippling self-doubt. Some wished he’d return, some said he’d be better off not, some said he definitely won’t, some said he wouldn’t be able to stay away. Jumpthefence has already had his say but would be most inclined to think it was down to problems in Keane’s head rather than his abilities or heart. But if nothing else, Keane has shown once again that no matter what we all think, nobody has a bull’s notion what’s really going on in that mind when he walks Triggs.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Keane gone from Sunderland, a surprise?

Well, well, I really ought have guessed. Jumpthefence has been mulling on entering the blogosphere for quite a while and when I finally bite the bullet, who’s there waiting as my first blog but Roy Keane. It’s like learning to cycle on a mountain stage of the Tour de France. People get hurt. Keane is about as divisive a figure as you can get in Irish sport and we’ve some history here. I’ve fought bitterly with family members who I’d normally be minding my ps and qs around over Keane.

I’ll lay my cards on the table early on and say I’ve always liked the man. Admired the way that amongst all the stars from around the world who washed up at Old Trafford it was a boy from Mayfield who led the most successful team in England for a decade or so. This doesn’t all mean I agree with every utterance or move he makes (a common misperception). I’m a Radiohead fan but that doesn’t mean I love every song or album of theirs. What’ll nag at me about Keane leaving Sunderland is the buckets and lashings of schadenfreude that’ll be whipping around over the next while. Some people never really had a liking for Keane, mainly due to the Man Utd angle I’m reckoning. Some never forgave him for Saipan. Many domestic league supporters resented the Sunderland story, seeing it as all that’s wrong with the modern Irish football fan (In fairness, if the most influential Irish player of all time in his first job in management with a club of Irish ownership and with another extremely famous face as chairman doesn’t generate a whole pile of press and interest, there’d be something up). A lot of people for different reasons will take great pleasure in Keane suffering here, which is a pity.

Anyway, to the story, and he’s left Sunderland of course. Nobody can say it wasn’t coming, or that it’s a shocker. A man like Keane, that has that impulsive, contrary streak running through him, is always capable of pulling a stunt like this. Story goes that he was increasingly isolated by the end, and that may turn out to be the biggest hindrance to him succeeding as a top manager. His whole career reads of a man cutting himself off from colleagues, of fighting that internal battle a little removed from advice or help. I imagine him as a Brian Clough figure, up in his office fighting demons and doubts and fuming over some mistake made ten days previously.
From a footballing viewpoint, I honestly don’t think he did that bad a job. Sure, he spent money (around £77m) but it was there to be spent. He took the club from struggling badly in the Championship to surviving in the Premier League. At times I liked the look of him on the sideline, there seemed to be a thought process going on and a structure to what he was trying to do. Initially he bought players to get promotion, then players to survive, then last summer was about taking another step. That’s where the whole process seemed to get muddled. He bought players like David Healy, Teemu Tainio, El-Hadji Diouf, without any real thought as to how to gel a team together. There was no player – except perhaps Kenwyne Jones – who you could say improved under Keane’s management. There were so many players in the end, Keane never seemed to know his best team. Guys were played, then dropped. There was no consistency of performance. Sunderland beat Newcastle one week and then lost to Stoke with the same team the following weekend. Then, they were unlucky at times. They were a minute from beating Arsenal. They ought to have whipped Fulham and Portsmouth. They had a run of winnable games coming up. Few doubt that Sunderland had enough to get well out of trouble. The problem was that Keane seemed to doubt himself, his own abilities.

The future? There’s a train of thinking that says Keane is now damaged goods as a manager, and the way of English football would suggest that may be the case. But I recall reading an interesting piece with Gianluca Vialli in the past saying that English football is far too quick to judge and cast aside failing managers. It’s all a learning experience surely. Rafa Benitez was sacked by Real Valladolid after two wins in 23 games, Osasuna after one win in nine, he promoted Extremadura to La Liga and then saw them relegated. That’s three apparent failures before hitting the jackpot with Tenerife, Valencia and then Liverpool. Italians – who tend to produce the most successful managers – see it as a trade, where you learn gradually, make mistakes and get better with each job. Carlo Ancelotti was a bit of a disaster at Juve but still got the Milan job. Whether Keane has the hunger to go back, learn from his mistakes and evolve, is of course the big question here.

Hopefully, someone out there will take a punt on Keane in the future. It’d be a shame if what’s happened has put him out of the game for good. Football will be less interesting in his absence, that’s for sure.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

An introduction

So, an introduction and perhaps, a mission statement to begin. Jumpthefence will attempt to offer thoughts, musings, ramblings, facts, fictions, opinions, rants and other random groupings of words on whatever tickles our fancy on Irish sport over the coming months. These will hopefully be pretty regular, though we'll refrain from making and breaking too many promises too soon. We'd imagine football - anything Irish related, English and European leagues also - will be high up on the list of subjects covered. Gaelic football and hurling will have their times. Rugby will most likely get an infrequent, and let's be honest from the start here folks, very possibly negative airing. We'll hope to touch on whatever else is topical as things happen.
We'll do our best to be informative. We'll not sit on the fence too often. We may share the occasional bias with the outside world from time to time and we might spout a little too frequently on matters Cork GAA or on whether Cristiano Ronaldo is the best thing since oh, Tony Daley. We may even call Cristiano Ronaldo a bluffer if it feels right. We'll do our best not to be cynical, though occasional bouts will be expected, especially when Cork footballers lose to Kerry. We'll try to be consistent, while remembering how Oscar Wilde and Eamonn Dunphy treat consistency. We'll try and make calls on the issues of the day whenever possible.
Chat and comments are always welcome, especially people who agree with Jumpthefence, though those angling for a good argument will be treated like members of the family.